Although Menachem Mendel Beilis came from a chasidishe family, he was “indifferent” to religion and assimilated—working at a brick factory, seven days a week in a suburb of Kiev. In 1911, the completely unassuming Jew was cast into the international spotlight as the defendant in a sensational, antisemitic blood libel trial in Russia—due to a baseless accusation of ritual murder of a Christian child. Jews around the world mobilized in support of the defendant. Ultimately, Beilus was acquitted because of lack of evidence, the lessons remained from the traumatic “Beilis Affair.” In effect, it was symbolic of the millennia-old existential trial inflicted upon all Jewry.
As part of the prosecution against Mendel Beilis, Russian theologians presented “proofs” from the Talmud that Jews do not view murder of gentiles as a crime, and that only Jewish life was to be valued. For example, “Atem keruim adam—You, the Jewish people, are called, ‘adam, men,’ but gentiles are not called, ‘adam, men,’” (Yevamos, 61a). Here, the Gemara is only addressing the difference in laws of tumah and taharah, based on the verse, “When a man (adam) dies in a tent,” (Bamidbar, 19:14). And the fact is, the intent of the discussion is to show that the corpse of a Jew can transmit ritual impurity to someone in the same tent, while that of a non-Jew cannot.
The vicious misinterpretation and removal from its context made the statement appear to say that gentiles are considered sub-human.
In anticipation of the predictable charge, Beilis’ attorneys reached out to various Jewish thinkers and leaders of the day to formulate a response. One of the responses came from a young Rav Meir Shapiro—the future founder of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, and architect of the Daf Yomi movement. A brilliant and eloquent spokesman for the Jewish community, he was also a member of the Polish parliament.
The Lubliner Rav advised the defense team: “Ask the judge this: If an Italian were arrested in Poland or a Frenchman in Germany, would the entire Italian nation or all Frenchmen be praying for his well-being and advocating for his acquittal? Would countrymen across the world be fretting over his condition and awaiting news of his release? Certainly not.”
“But when one Jew, such as Mendel Beilis, is falsely accused and put on trial, the entire Jewish nation stands by his side. The Jewish people are a single unit, and this is why they are indeed called, “adam, a man.” Every Jew is a part of a single body; when one limb is suffering, the entire body feels the pain.”~ וַיִּחַן־שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר׃
“… And Israel encamped (singular) there, in front of the mountain,” (Shemos, 19:2).כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד
“… As one person, with one heart,” (Rashi).
Rav Meir Shapiro, zt”l, said, “The mishna was edited by Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi in Eretz Yisrael. The Gemara was compiled in Bavel by Rav Ashi, and explained by Rashi and Tosafists, who lived primarily in France. The Rosh was from Germany, the Rambam from Spain and Egypt, and the Maharshal, the Maharsha and the Maharam were from Poland. A page of Gemara is an expression of unity … and by learning the same daf every day, Jews throughout the world now have an opportunity to be united through the bond of Torah.”
Similarly, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelevitch, zt”l, used to tell his students: “We are now learning Torah that was given to us in the desert, and which was expounded in the oral Torah by scholars living in Bavel. The Ramban—who wrote commentaries on both the written and oral Torah—lived in Spain, and Rashi in France. The Maharsha—who explained the difficulties in Tosafos—lived in Poland, and we who drink from the water of all of them live in Williamsburg, where we study the same Torah that was given at Har Sinai.”ישראל אורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא כולא חד
“Am Yisrael, the Torah and HaKadosh Baruch Hu are chad—a complete unity,” (Alter Rebbe, in the name of the Zohar).
How can this be? The Jewish people, the Torah and the formless creator are obviously different in nature. And even within Klal Yisrael, there are many different shapes, sizes, colors and hues; different nationalities, languages, customs and paths, as well as intellectual and spiritual lineages. Each one of us is radically different from all other people; we all have different gifts and abilities, challenges and unique fingerprints, demanding a reassessment of our understanding of “oneness”…שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה׳ אֱלֹקֵינוּ ה׳ אֶחָד׃
“Understand, O Yisrael, Hashem (singular) is our Elokim (plural); Hashem is One.”
The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 1:7) teaches that here the word אֶחָד, “Echad—one,” refers the singularity of Hashem. Yet the term “yachid” might have been a more accurate choice to convey this, especially as “echad” implies one in a series of other numbers: “echad, shtayim, shalosh, arba—one, two, three, four, etc … ” In fact, this implication seems to contradict the very meaning of “oneness,” for Hashem is certainly not “one” deity among many. However the Mitteler Rebbe—Reb Dovber of Lubavitch—presents a resolution (Imrei Binah, 98a): the oneness of Hashem actually encompasses each and every individual number; Hashem’s oneness includes the number one and the number two, etc., and each individual entity in creation. Hashem is singularity in multiplicity, oneness in diversity.
In the same way, the great diversity of the Jewish people is “one.” Each “one” of us—in all our differentiation—are encompassed in a singular, inseparable whole—like one person with one heart.~
Shavuos celebrates, “‘Uba’u kulam b’vris yachad, na’aseh v’nishma’ amru k’echad—They all came together in the covenant of the Torah; we will perform it and then, we will understand it,’ They said as one.” May we activate the oneness of our people on this day, while also appreciating our individual uniqueness. May we manifest our essential oneness with Torah and Hashem, and receive the Toras Achas, the Torah of oneness, b’simchah u’b’penimiyus, with joy and inner depth.
Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.